The Book of Acts and New Testament History
The only official canonical history of the Christian church, the Book of Acts written by Luke, concludes with the two years’ imprisonment of Paul in Rome (Acts 28). This was in 61 C.E. Still, there were many important and highly significant events which occurred after that year, and some of them were recorded in later New Testament writings. Why these historical occurrences were not recorded in the Book of Acts is a subject we will cover later, yet it is essential to lill in the political and religious environment of this period in order to find the reasons for the canonization of the New Testament. This is what will be done in this chapter.
There was no thought of forming a New Testament canon before 63 C.E. After that date, however, the apostle Paul realized that the time of the end would not occur in that generation. As late as 61 C.E. Paul was still of the opinion that it was possible for Christ to appear from heaven very soon. That is what prompted him, at his release from his first Roman imprisonment, to proceed forward in finalizing his preaching of the Gospel to the world. He had been assigned all of the Gentile areas from Asia Minor to Spain in the west. And in 61 C.E. he went to Spain in order to complete his assigned mission. It was believed that this was the last thing Paul had to accomplish in order for Christ to return to earth.
Christ had made it clear that “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come” (Matthew 24:14). To the people living in the 1st century “all the world” customarily meant the government system under which they lived, and to the Jewish people in particular it signified all areas of the world in which the Jews resided. People back in that period did not construe the phrase “all the world” to mean the totality of the globe. When Luke said that Joseph and Mary had to appear at Bethlehem for the birth of Christ because “all the world should be enrolled” (Luke 2:1), he was only referring to the world which was under the sway of the Roman government. In the case of the apostle Paul, “all the world” to him only indicated the specific areas of our planet that were assigned to him by the early apostles. Paul’s “world” embraced the region of Spain. This is why, after his release from his first Roman imprisonment in 61 C.E., he made his journey to the final area allotted to him for teaching the Gospel.
There is no doubt that Paul went to Spain because we read in the writings of Clement of Rome, in the last decade of the 1st century, that Paul “taught righteousness to the whole world, having traveled to the limits of the west” (1 Clement 5:7). 1 Clement was well aware what the phrase “the whole world” meant to 1st century people and he stated that Paul completely fulfilled that responsibility by finally preaching “west of Rome” — in the region of Spain (Romans 15:24–28).
The finality of Paul’s preaching in the geographical districts designated to him presents us with an important piece of knowledge regarding the time of composition for some New Testament books. And more significantly, it provides a New Testament basis for finally canonizing some of those letters and documents.
To set the stage for understanding this point, look at the letter of First Timothy. In speaking about the mystery of Christ, Paul told Timothy (in 64 C.E.) that Christ “was preached among the nations and was believed on in the world” (1 Timothy 3:16). To Paul, by this time, all the world had been reached with the Gospel message. This indication gives evidence that Paul had already gone to Spain and that he had, by late 63 C.E., returned to the east. The fact that Paul had traveled to Spain (the extremity of his “world” assignment) is also a helpful clue to the time the Book of Colossians was written. There are two statements in that epistle which clearly date its writing to a period after Paul’s journey to Spain (which took place from 61 to 62 C.E.). Notice:
“Do not be shifted away from the hope of the Gospel which you heard, and which was preached IN ALL CREATION under the heaven, of which Gospel I Paul became a minister.”
Note that “all the creation” had been reached, and this phrase meant all the world that had been assigned to Paul. This shows that Paul had already accomplished his trip to Spain by the time he wrote Colossians. The “whole world” had been evangelized as far as Paul was concerned. This is emphasized a few verses earlier in Colossians.
“You heard the word of truth of the Gospel which has presented itself to you, even as it is bearing fruit and increasing in all the world.”
These references show that Paul’s “world’ had been evangelized when he wrote Colossians. This indication helps us to date several epistles. One of them is what we presently call “Ephesians.” When one compares the subject matter of Colossians with Ephesians it becomes obvious that the two letters were composed at the same time and virtually cover the same subject. Indeed the letter titled to “the Ephesians” was really the one which Paul called “to the Laodiceans” in Colossians 4:16. The cities of Colossae and Laodicea were located very near one another in the eastern section of the province of Asia.
In some early manuscripts, the title “Ephesus” in the first verse of the epistle to “the Ephesians” is left blank and a space provided for the insertion of an unknown destination. There is even internal proof in the “Ephesian” epistle itself that it could not have been written solely to the Christians at Ephesus because Paul said in Colossians that he had never seen any of the people at Colossae or Laodicea face to face (Colossians 2:1). He said essentially the same thing in this so-called “Ephesian” letter. In Ephesians 1:15 Paul stated that he had only heard of the faith of those to whom he was writing in “Ephesians” and that he had never seen them face to face. But this was not the case with the actual Ephesians. This is because Paul had been to Ephesus on several occasions, even staying for two years at one time (Acts 19:10).
Paul certainly was well acquainted with many of the Ephesian citizens. This is evidence that the so-called letter of Paul to the “Ephesians” which we presently find in our New Testament was not intended to go to the people of Ephesus alone (though it is probable that the letter finally wound up at Ephesus at a later time). Actually, the “Ephesian” letter is the one which Paul called “to the Laodiceans” (Colossians 4:16). And, there is ancient testimony that suggests this. Prof. Alan McNeile points out that “the most important authorities [among them the Sinaiticus manuscript and ancient codices known to Origen] omit ‘at Ephesus.’ Marcion (and, according to Tertulian, other heretics) styled the epistle “to the Laodiceans.’” 2 This ancient appraisal was no doubt correct.
We now come to an important point regarding the letters to the Colossians and to the “Ephesians” (that is, to the Laodiceans). This will help us understand why these two epistles were finally placed in the New Testament canon. Paul wrote these two epistles while he was in prison (Ephesians 4:1; 6:20; Colossians 4:3, 10, 18).
The letter to Philemon which we presently have in our New Testament canon was also written by Paul while in bondage (Philemon 10). And in his letter to Philemon, Paul mentioned that he was about to be released from that particular imprisonment (verse 22) and he wanted Philemon (who must also have lived near Colossae) to prepare a lodging for him (verse 22). Paul was about to be freed and wanted to stay awhile with Philemon. This soon release from prison is also mentioned in Colossians and “Ephesians.” Paul asked the Colossians to pray:
“That God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison, that I may make it clear, as I ought to speak.”
There is a similar request in Ephesians chapter 6:
“That utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.”
Paul felt that a new opportunity was opening to him to further spread the teaching of “the Mystery” of God. His imminent release from that imprisonment was no doubt viewed by him as a door beginning to open.
We now need to ask an important question, in what area of the world was Paul’s imprisonment when he wrote the epistles of Colossians, Ephesians, and Philemon? We have a good clue to the location when we read Paul’s second letter to Timothy which he wrote from Rome. He mentioned that Onesiphorus had proved to be of great service to him while in Ephesus and that Timothy had been well aware of the help given by Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:16–17). Indeed, if one reads 2 Timothy 1:15 through 18 carefully, it will be seen that those four verses speak about Paul’s experiences while he was in the Roman province of Asia (verse 15), particularly in the city of Ephesus (verse 18).
In the midst of speaking about the events that happened to him at Ephesus, Paul said that Onesiphorus helped him while he was in his chains (verse 16). Paul also put into the same context a parenthetical reference that Onesiphorus had ALSO sought him out in Rome (verse 17). Paul, however, was informing Timothy about Onesiphorus’ help when he was in an Ephesian imprisonment, not his then current incarceration that he was then enduring at Rome. When this is realized, a flood of light comes on the scene with more details of what happened to Paul in Asia, particularly at Ephesus. This information makes it almost certain that Paul wrote “Ephesians,” Colossians, and Philemon during an imprisonment at Ephesus, not from either of his two incarcerations at Rome or his earlier one in Caesarea. An Ephesian confinement has been recognized by scholars. 3
As a matter of history, Clement, the Roman elder of the late 1st century, said that Paul underwent seven major imprisonments (1 Clement 5:6). These may well be identified in the New Testament:
Regarding the development of the New Testament canon, we need to look closely at that sixth imprisonment at Ephesus. It is an important one in the historical sense because it gives a chronological benchmark for the writing of several epistles of Paul. Since this incarceration occurred after his visit to Spain, it enables us to determine when certain important letters were composed. Let us look at the matter.
The first epistle that Paul wrote after having visited Spain was Titus. in that letter he mentioned that he had left Titus in Crete to evangelize the island and raise up congregations in its various regions. This entailed the ordination of ministers to pastor each area. Obviously, Paul was well aware by this time that Christ was not going to return from heaven in that generation. Everything in the context of the epistle to Titus suggests that Paul thought a long period would elapse before that glorious event would occur. If we allow Paul to have taught about a year or so in Spain, this would indicate he returned to the east about 63 C.E. — probably going first to Crete with Titus, and then on to Nicopolis in Western Greece where he decided to winter (Titus 3:12). The Sabbatical Year of 62 to 63 C.E. was then about to be completed.
The following spring (64 C.E.), Paul journeyed north to Macedonia, perhaps with a brief stop in Ephesus to see Timothy — 1 Timothy 1:3. After spending some time in the area of Macedonia, he wrote his first letter to Timothy which we have in our New Testament (1 Timothy 1:3). This was probably in the summer of 64 C.E. In that letter he mentioned a specific doctrine which he called “the Mystery” (1 Timothy 3:16). This doctrine which he later explained in detail in the epistles to the Colossians and “Ephesians,” was a brand new revelation that had never been disclosed in ages, at least, that is what Paul taught (Ephesians 3:1–11; Colossians 1:26).
When one reads those accounts carefully, it can be seen that this teaching of “the Mystery” was a brand new revelation only given to him and others when it was recognized by Paul that the prophesied end-time events leading up to Christ’s second advent had not occurred by the end of 63 C.E. The revelation of that new doctrinal teaching must have been given to Paul around the last part of 63 C.E. because he told the Colossians and “Ephesians” that “the Mystery” had NOW been revealed to the apostles and prophets by the Spirit (Colossians 1:26; Ephesians 3:5). This majestic teaching may well have been revealed after the 63 C.E. disappointment to help explain why Christ was not returning in that generation.
There is evidence, however, that the apostles Peter and John thought there might still be a chance for the Abomination of Desolation to be set up in the “midst of the week.” The “midst of the week” would, of course, have been 3½ years within the sabbatical period of 7 years from Autumn 63 to Autumn 70 C.E., which would answer to near Passover in 67 C.E. But something happened in the spring of 66 C.E., however, that caused all the apostles to accept the fact that Christ was not returning back to earth in that generation following the resurrection of Christ. This occurrence will be explained shortly.
By the end of the year 63 C.E., the apostle Paul was able to see that the Roman Empire (which was thought at the time to be the “iron legs” of Daniel’s image) was not going to collapse to allow the prophesied ten kings to emerge on the scene. Paul then became confident that the time of the end was far into the future. This is when he began to think of a canonization of his letters (and those of the other apostles). Indeed, the final revelation of “the Mystery” appears to have been the principal encouragement to account for the disappointment of 63 C.E. and why a canon of the New Testament books was now needed. That new doctrine of “the Mystery” was related in detail in Paul’s letters to the Colossians and “Ephesians” and it was revealed to him most likely between the time he wrote his letter to Titus (63 C.E.) and that of First Timothy (64 C.E.).
After writing First Timothy in Macedonia, Paul returned to Ephesus in 64 C.E. He then taught in that area and was finally cast into prison (his sixth major imprisonment). This is when he wrote Colossians, Philippians, Philemon, and “Ephesians.” It is noteworthy that Paul described himself as “Paul the aged” when he wrote Philemon, so the time period must have been very late in Paul’s ministry. It fits in perfectly with this late imprisonment in Ephesus.
He was then released from bonds early in 65 C.E. and went to Laodicea and Colossae (Philemon 22). From there he continued his journey into Galatia, specifically to Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra (2 Timothy 3:11). He encountered stiff opposition and persecution in this area. We will soon explain why. After his stay in Galatia he began his last trip to Rome, to his final imprisonment and death. Whether Paul was placed in custody in Galatia and escorted back to Rome, or whether he went on his own accord, is not stated. He may have returned through Troas, at the northwestern part of Asia Minor, but instead of going the land route through Macedonia and Illyricum to the Adriatic Sea, he journeyed to Corinth then Malta (2 Timothy 4:20) finally arriving at Rome. He must have reached Rome in the autumn of 65 C.E.
After awhile, probably in middle autumn, he wrote his second letter to Timothy asking him to come to Rome with John Mark before the winter of 65/66 C.E. arrived (2 Timothy 4:21). It was sometime around the autumn or winter of 66 C.E. that he met his death by execution. This brief overview of the chronological events associated with Paul from 62 to 66 C.E. will help us to comprehend some important factors regarding the canonization of the New Testament documents. Let us now look at the historical environment of this crucial period.
We now need to retrace our tracks and look at the political and religious events which were occurring in Judaea and the Roman Empire from 62 C.E. to the time of Paul and Peter’s deaths (66 to 67 C.E.). As far as the New Testament historical record is concerned, the evangelist Luke in the Book of Acts stopped his narrative near the summer of 61 C.E. The book ends so abruptly and without an “Amen” to close its final statement that many people have thought the book was never finished, or that the later parts of it were for some reason taken away. Whatever the case, it can be stated without controversy that some of the most profound historical events involving the Christian community (and certainly the canonization of the New Testament) transpired after the close of the Book of Acts. What we need to do is to look carefully at those few years that succeeded the New Testament historical record because they contain information of developments which greatly affected the writing of the last letters of the apostles and the reasons for the formation of the New Testament canon.
The first major historical occurrence for Christians within this period was the martyrdom of James, the brother of Christ and head of the Jerusalem Christians. This happened at Passover in 62 C.E. 4 This was followed by the Sabbatical Year of 62 to 63 C.E. and the commencement of a prophetic dirge against Jerusalem and the Temple by a man named Joshua ben Ananias. 5 Josephus, who was an eyewitness to these affairs from that time to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, said that the inauguration of this prophetic dirge by Joshua ben Ananias was the start of the ruin of the Jews in Palestine. It was then that “sickness fell upon our city, and everything went from bad to worse.” 6 The malady started with the Feast of Tabernacles of 62 C.E. (and shortly thereafter). “From this date were sown in the city the seeds of its impending doom.” 7 From the Autumn of 62 C.E., and for seven years and five months, Joshua ben Ananias continued to cry out “Woe to Jerusalem.”
Since Christ himself had said that Jerusalem and the Temple were to be destroyed (Matthew 24:1–2; Luke 21:20), this may have been a reason why many Christians retreated from Palestine at that time. Eusebius, the Church historian of the 4th century, said this very period was when the apostles and disciples who were in Judaea began to be scattered around the world. 8 Thomas was supposed to have gone to Parthia, Andrew to Scythia, and the apostle John was thought to have gone to the western parts of Asia Minor (around Ephesus). In fact, Eusebius said the apostles not long after the death of James in 62 C.E. “were driven out of Judaea.” 9 With chaos beginning in Palestine, and knowing that the prophesied destruction of the country and Jerusalem was imminent, there is historical evidence that many Jewish people left the country for other areas of the Roman Empire. Indeed, the emigration became so intense that by the year 64 C.E. (when the Roman procurator Florus took over rule in Judaea) Josephus said that people from all over Judaea, even whole cities and regions of the country, sought refuge in other provinces of the Roman Empire. 10
A great influx of Jewish people from Palestine began to swell the eastern provinces of the Empire, and this especially involved the provinces in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Among the refugecs was John the apostle who apparently went to Ephesus. Phillip and his virgin daughters went to Hieriopolis near Laodicea. This vast movement of Jewish people (Christians and non-Christians alike) provided some social and political problems to arise in the areas to which they immigrated.
It was in this period that Peter wrote his first epistle from Jerusalem, which he cryptically called “Babylon” like that of the Book of Revelation 17:5 with a further reference in Revelation 11:8. Peter was one of the chief apostles to the Jewish people (Galatians 2:7–9). It is interesting that Peter called his readers, who were scattered through the areas of northern and western Asia Minor, “alien residents,” ones who were living temporarily in those northern areas (1 Peter 1:1, 17; 2:11–12). They had shortly before become residents of the provinces in Asia Minor. And since there was a mass exodus of Jewish peopIe out of Palestine in the spring and summer of 64 C.E. into other provinces of the Roman Empire, it is conceivable that Peter wrote his first epistle primarily to those Jewish Christians who left Palestine en masse (with other Jews) from 62 C.E. up to 64 C.E.
This large exodus of Christian people from Palestine may account for one of the reasons why only very few Christians were left in Judaea by 66 C.E. when the last remnants of them retreated to the city of Pella some 60 miles northeast of Jerusalem. 11 This final retreat was in the summer of 66 C.E. (after an oracle given in the Temple at Pentecost that even the Deity was leaving the Temple).
The city of Pella was a Gentile city of modest size. For these remnant Christians to find a temporary residence in that area shows that their number must have been relatively small. While the Book of Acts records that there had been tens of thousands of Jews who believed in Christ in 56 C.E. (and they were all ardent law-keepers), within ten years (by 66 C.E.) only hundreds (or at best a thousand or so) fled from Jerusalem and the countryside of Judaea to the Gentile city of Pella.
The fact that they made their way to Pella, instead of the mountain and wilderness areas around Palestine, shows they were aware that the second advent of Christ was no longer an impending prospect. It was clear in the teachings of Christ that the actual end-time generation of Christians in Palestine should flee to the mountains and wilderness, a perfect description of the region of Edom in which the city of Petra was located (Isaiah 16:1–4; Matthew 24:16; Revelation 12:14). But Petra was not a mountainous or wilderness area south of the Dead Sea. The fact that the few Christians left in Jerusalem and Judaea went to Pella is sufficient proof they were convinced that the prophesied events associated with the second advent were not then in evidence.
We will later see in this chapter that a major diminution of the Christian population in Judaea was not only because of a mass exodus of people from Palestine from 62 to 64 C.E., but there were vast numbers of Jews who also abandoned the Christian faith after the great disappointment of 63 C.E. Many of them joined the revolutionary forces in the Roman/Jewish War of 66 to 70 C.E. The New Testament records this lapse from their previous convictions.
When the crucial year 63 C.E. passed, and no significant end-time prophecies which Jesus said would occur were then happening, thousands of Jewish Christians began to deny the new faith and the sovereignty of Christ, along with the authority of the apostles. We will later see that the apostle Peter in his second epistle was speaking about this great apostasy which began to occur just before the Roman/Jewish War got into full swing.
We now need to look at the historical environment of the period around the year 64 C.E. The events of that year played a significant part in the history of Christianity.
First of all, there was the great fire of Rome which started on the 19th of July. Much of the magnificent city of Rome was ruined in the flames and this proved to be a profound historical occurrence. The repercussions of it were echoed around the whole of the Empire. There was speculation that Nero himself had ordered Rome’s destruction so that a new city (with “modern’ facilities throughout) could emerge from the ashes of old Rome. Indeed, a new city was begun with the prospect that Nero’s own name would identify it. There were also suggestions made by some of Nero’s astrologers that he ought to move his capital to Jerusalem because it was then a popular belief that a new world empire was on the verge of fulfillment, and that it would be established in Palestine. 12
There was then an air of Messianic expectation that a “Christ” would take control of the entire world. This belief was widespread even at Rome. This is one of the main reasons that the fire of Rome was blamed on a “Chrestus” (a Messiah figure) who was attempting to establish a world government by the overthrow of the Roman Empire. Recall that in Jewish circles it was normally believed that the kingdom of the “iron legs” (the Roman Empire) was to he destroyed in order for ten kings to have a dominion just prior to the establishment of the new world order. The fire of Rome was seen as a beginning to the fall of the Empire.
The apostle Paul, however, had been teaching since 63 C.E. that the real demise of Rome and the emergence of the Kingdom of God on earth were to be far into the future. Nonetheless, people calling themselves “Christians,” even true Christians, were blamed for the fire of Rome. This resulted in a major affliction throughout the Roman Empire against all people who claimed to be Christians.
The First epistle of Peter, speaking about a fiery trial that was then occurring upon many Christians throughout the world (1 Peter 5:9), appears to have been written in the late summer or autumn of 64 C.E., at the exact time when the persecutions of Christians for the fire of Rome began to reach their apex. Peter’s description of the great fiery trial then upon the Christians of Asia Minor and his emphasis that in spite of the circumstances people should still obey the government of the emperor and his assistants seem to reflect the political environment of this period of persecution (1 Peter 2:17 with 2:23, 3:14, 4:12).
The second major event of 64 C.E. which affected Christians was the completing of the Temple (begun about 80 years before by King Herod). 13 This was especially important to the Jews because it now meant that their Messiah could arrive. By 64 C.E., the Temple was fully restored and it was ready for a proper national worship to accommodate any rule of a new Messiah.
It is interesting that at the very time the finishing touches were being made to the Temple, the apostle Paul was then teaching the revelation called “the Mystery” in which he said that “the middle wall of partition” in the Temple at Jerusalem was now abolished and destroyed in the eyes of God (Ephesians 2:14). What a paradox. Paul was speaking about the destruction of the physical Temple as a means to reach God at the very time it was completed and put into final operation. Paul was even teaching that the type of Temple that God now desired was made up of “new men” and not physical Jews or others who depended upon the Temple at Jerusalem (Ephesians 2:14–22). This teaching no doubt aroused a great deal of hostility to Paul among the Jews. Even many Christian Jews must have objected since they were all zealous for the Law of Moses.
The apostle Paul had a long history of teaching against the necessity for the physical ceremonies of Moses concerning circumcision, the Temple, holy days, the exclusion of Gentiles, etc. 14 But now it was almost more than those who were zealous of the Law could take. Paul was now saying (about 64 C.E.) that the Temple itself was no longer the spiritual dwelling place of God and that its “middle wall of partition” was now, in a symbolic sense, reckoned by God as having been leveled to the ground.
This revelation of “the Mystery” got Paul into difficulty especially with the Jewish people of Asia Minor. The large influx of Palestinian Jews into the area (and many Jewish Christians were among them) from 62 to 64 C.E. made the region quite hostile to Paul and his “new-fangled” teachings which abrogated from their point of view the Law of Moses to which they held tenaciously. Many Jewish Christians simply did not know what to make of the teachings of the apostle Paul. He had long had a history of irritating them with his doctrines which they thought were contrary to the Law. Now he was making it even more difficult for them to accept him when he was demolishing the significance of the Temple (the center of their religious beliefs) at the very time the structure had been completed.
This was almost too much for many Jewish Christians to take. As a result, when Paul went to Galatia in 65 C.E., among the vast numbers of new resident aliens from Palestine, and most were ardent law-keepers, Paul encountered intense hostility to his message and he mentioned this in his last letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:11). Indeed, after the revelation of “the Mystery,” the situation went from bad to worse.
Paul’s teaching, even among professing Christians, was looked on as so revolutionary and counter to all traditional beliefs among the Jews that people turned against him almost wholesale. So replete was this rejection of Pauls teaching that Paul told Timothy that “alI the men in Asia have turned away from me” (2 Timothy 1:15). Most of the Jewish Christians simply gave up on Paul as a renegade from the Law of Moses and the early teachings of Christ and the other apostles. Paul’s insistence that the physical Temple at Jerusalem was irrelevant and of no spiritual value in the doctrine of “the Mystery” was too much for many of them to swallow.
Even some of Paul’s dearest coworkers turned away from him when he began to teach his wide-sweeping anti-traditional doctrines recorded in Colossians and “Ephesians.” Even Demas, his close associate and friend, found it impossible to side with Paul in these matters (2 Timothy 4:10). Demas preferred the Christianity “of this age” (in whatever way he interpreted it) than the spiritual system of belief the apostle Paul was now beginning to teach.
What irritated the Jewish Christians so much was Paul’s insistence that the sabbaths, holy days, the new moons, and the food laws of the Mosaic Law were no longer essential to keep EVEN FOR JEWS. While Jewish Christians could barely tolerate Paul as long as he said that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised and keep the external ceremonies of the Law, they went totally against him when he said that Jewish Christians could also discontinue the use of them in their devotions to God (Ephesians 2:14–22).
What provoked the Jews more than anything, however, was Paul’s appraisal that the Mosaic Law was altogether inferior to the new revelations of Christianity. Paul was teaching that the Law was given to Moses by the hand of a mediator, and that that particular mediator was not God (Galatians 3:19–20). Paul identified the mediator who actually gave Moses the Law with “the angel of the Lord” who spoke to Moses at the burning bush who only came in the name and authority of God (Acts 7:30–31). This chief angel had other angels to help him when he gave Moses the Ten Commandments and the other laws.
Stephen said that Israel “received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it” (Acts 7:53). The Book of Hebrews stated that the Mosaic Law had been “spoken by angels” (Hebrews 2:2). Even the Jewish historian Josephus was aware of the general belief among Jewish people that the Law had been given through the agency of angels. He said: “We have learned the noblest of our doctrines and the holiest of our laws through angels sent from God.” 15
While it was normally accepted that God used angels, and particularly “the angel of the Lord,” to give the Law in his name, Paul even went further and called such angelic powers by the name of “elemental spirits” (the principalities and powers) which Christ had triumphed over at his crucifixion (Colossians 2:8, 14, 20). 16 Indeed, Paul even reinforced his teaching by referring to the Law of Moses as “a religious system derived from the angels” (Colossians 2:18, note the original Greek which makes this clear). And Paul said this “religion of the angels” (found in the Law of Moses) was no longer in force for Christians, whether they were Jews or Gentiles.
“Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross, and having spoiled principalities and powers [who gave the ordinances], he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it. Because of this, let no man judge you in matters of eating or drinking, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days, which things are a shadow of things to come. The body [the actual body, not the shadow] belongs to Christ.”
Paul was beginning to teach (with the new revelation of “the Mystery”) that Christians were dead to the ordinances of those “elemental spirits” which provided the Law to Moses. Something better had come and it was the teaching of God’s Son Himself. To the apostle Paul, the Law of Moses had been completely superseded and made irrelevant as a means to salvation.
While this may make perfectly good sense to Christians today who have long respected Paul’s teachings on these matters, it was not so easily accepted by the early Jewish Christians. Many of them considered these revolutionary doctrines as blatantly heretical and a complete apostasy from the original teachings of the early apostles. It must be recalled that most Jewish Christians were “zealous of the law” and were very careful in keeping all the Mosaic customs (Acts 21:20–21). There can be no doubt that vast numbers of Jewish Christians disowned Paul and his doctrines which he boldly asserted in the epistles of “Ephesians” and Colossians. This could easily account for the reason that all Asia came to repudiate Paul in early 65 C.E. (2 Timothy 1:15).
Since Paul said that those in the province of Asia had by 64/65 C.E. turned away from him, we need to ask about the apostle John’s reaction to Paul’s teachings. There is little reason to doubt that John lived in this very region of Asia Minor when the great rejection of Paul took place. John was quite conservative in his understanding of the Gospel. In his writings of the middle 60s C.E., he insisted his readers should recapture the teachings which were given “from the beginning” (1 John 2:7, 13, 3:8, 11; 2 John 5). The wording in his three epistles seems to decry any type of “new-fangled” teachings that were then thought to be emerging on the scene. To John, his emphasis was back to “the beginning.”
But near 64 C.E. we find Paul advocating the new revelation of “the Mystery” right in the area where the apostle John was living and preaching. On the surface it seems strange that Paul said not one word about meeting with John or having a combined teaching effort with him. Were they at odds with one another at this time? It appears that they were. This is because Paul stated about a year later that “all the men of Asia have turned away from me” (1 Timothy 1:15). True, Paul did not say that John himself had turned from him, but John was almost certainly in Asia at the time and it seems definite that John was not at first like-minded with Paul in his denouncement of the Mosaic requirements for salvation even for the Jewish Christians.
There is not one bit of evidence in the New Testament that John and Paul ever associated with each other in their separate ministries. At an early conference in Jerusalem it was agreed that James, Peter and John were to concentrate their efforts on preaching to the Jews while Paul and Barnabas were to go to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7–9). But a short time later, when the subject of circumcision regarding the Gentiles was discussed in Jerusalem, there is no mention that John even attended the conference (Acts 15). The truth is the original apostles who were first ordained by Christ before the crucifixion were zealous for the retention of the Mosaic Law within the doctrinal teachings of Christianity. This was not the case with Paul. He came to see the matter through completely different eyeglasses and the apostles at Jerusalem became well aware that Paul was not in the camp of the law-keepers. This resulted in a continuous and deep-seated suspicion of the apostle Paul among the authorities at Jerusalem (cf. Acts 21:18–25).
This mistrust of Paul certainly included the apostle John who made a point of advocating a retention of early teachings. So, it appears that John was not at first fond of Paul’s doctrines. Not only was Paul espousing that the food laws of Moses were not needed for salvation, but also the sabbaths, the holy days, the new moons, and even the ordained regulations governing the holy Temple were now abolished. Did the apostle John and the other Jewish Christians of Asia Minor (and there must have been thousands in the area by 64 C.E.) completely abandon Paul and his “new-fangled” and “heretical” teachings?
And what was the apostle John’s attitude to Paul’s doctrines? No doubt John was in the region of Asia Minor when Paul made his final tour of preaching in the area. And the people in the regions where Paul had so long labored were so upset with him that the vast majority simply gave him up for lost (2 Timothy 1:15). Indeed, even a short time later when Paul was once again in prison in Rome, he told Timothy that even his close associates in Rome had deserted him and that “only Luke is with me” (2 Timothy 4:11).
And what about Peter? When he wrote his first epistle to the “aliens and temporary residents” of the various provinces of Asia, he was instructing people who were directly within the areas that Paul had long ago evangelized. Indeed, the apostle Paul made it clear that he in no way would teach in regions not assigned to him (2 Corinthians 10:13–16), and even Peter and John had commissioned him some 15 years earlier to go to the Gentile areas of Galatia and Asia. But now, here was Peter writing to Paul’s regions of responsibility and probably at the very time Paul was there. He says not one word to or about Paul. This seems strange if they were both in a harmonious relationship at the time.
Pauls teachings that the very fabric of Mosaic requirements was now irrelevant in matters of attaining a salvation in Christ was considered a heretical teaching to most Jewish Christians. The apostle Peter was certainly aware of their attitude to such revolutionary and anti-traditional teachings. Perhaps Peter was trying to conciliate matters by not referring to Paul and what he was then advocating? Peter emphasized that all Christians should have compassion for one another, to love the brethren, to be pitiful and courteous to all (1 Peter 3:8).
Paul had long irritated most Jewish Christians with his abandonment of Moses even for the Gentiles. But now he was instructing Jews that the Mosaic sabbaths, holydays, new moons, food laws, and even the Temple itself (at the very time the building of the Temple was completed) were no longer efficacious in showing a righteousness in Christ. This no doubt was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The progressive doctrines that Paul finally taught appeared too reactionary to most early Christians, especially Jewish Christians. Even Peter and John may have lifted their eyebrows when Paul went as far as he did in his statements that the Old Testament ritualistic requirements were now abandoned as a means of reaching a righteousness in Christ.
Thankfully, however, this repudiation of Paul was not to last long as far as Peter and John were concerned (and the other Christians who followed them). Within two years of the Christians of Asia Minor renouncing Paul, Peter and John came to be solidly within the camp of Paul. Something happened to make them change their minds.
The Christians who rejected Paul about 65 C.E. did not have long to wait to see that he was correct about the Temple and the physical requirements of Moses. Some major events concerning the Temple happened in the spring of 66 C.E. that changed the minds of conservative Jewish Christians who continued to trust in its value. Those events were so striking and profound in the interpretation of Christian doctrine that it will profit us to look at them.
Josephus records three major miraculous occurrences dealing directly with the Temple which happened over a period of two months in the spring of 66 C.E., just a few months before the major Roman/Jewish War broke out that ended in the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. The first incident took place on the eighth day of Nisan just before the festival of Passover. We should let Josephus tell us in his own words what happened.
“Before the revolt and the disturbances which led to the war, at the time when the people were gathering for the feast of unleavened bread, on the eighth of the month Nisan, at the ninth hour of the night [at 3 o’clock in the morning], so brilliant a light shone around the altar and the inner temple that it seemed to be broad daylight; and this continued for the space of half an hour. By the novices this was regarded as a good omen, but by the sacred scribes it was at once interpreted in accord with the events which happened afterwards.”
Josephus, Wars of the Jews 6.5.3 ¶290
This was an interesting phenomenon. How would the wise among the scribes have interpreted this visitation and departure of the great light, like the Shekinah glory of God? For those who used the illustrations of the Old Testament as a guide, it would not have been difficult to figure out. It was recorded in the Holy Scriptures that when Israel came out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses, they were led by a cloud during daylight and a pillar of light at night (Psalm 78:14). Throughout the whole period of the wilderness journeys of Israel the cloud and the light remained over the Tabernacle (Numbers 9:15–23). As a signal to move from place to place, the cloud and the light would be “taken up” and lead them to a different location (Numbers 9:17). Thus, the portable Tabernacle (which was considered the residence of God) was to be moved from its former place to another site when the cloud and the light were “taken up.”
There was no doubt that the removal of the Shekinah glory from its former position meant that God himself was moving away from that location. So, the great light of God appeared in early Nisan of 66 C.E. directly over the altar and sanctuary on lower Mount Moriah at Jerusalem. It did not stay there, however. After thirty minutes of light which had the brilliance of the midday sun, the light then removed itself from the site of the Temple. If the holy sanctuary would have been a tent (like the Tabernacle in the wilderness), this would have been sure evidence that God was moving his sanctuary to a different area. But there was one problem with the situation of the Temple in 66 C.E. It was no longer a portable Tabernacle.
Josephus said that those who were wise among the scribes interpreted this as a signal that God was moving away from the Temple mount. This would have proved to be a dire predicament for the physical Temple (which had just been completed about two years before) because it was not possible to transfer the Temple (stones and all) to another location. With the Shekinah glory departing from the precincts of the Temple, this meant that God himself was preparing to move from Mount Moriah, to leave it behind as an “empty dwelling place.”
Indeed, when the next two signs about the Sanctuary are considered, it shows that God was truly deserting the Temple itself and that the building would be no more sacred than Herod’s secular palace. Let us now note the second of these miraculous signs. Josephus said it was equally spectacular.
“At that same feast [Passover, 66 C.E.], the eastern gate of the inner court at the sixth hour of the night [at midnight] opened of its own accord. This gate was of brass and very large and heavy, seeing that when it was closed each evening it took twenty men to shut it. It had bolts sunk to a great depth into a threshold made of a solid block of stone. The guards of the temple ran and reported the matter to the captain, and he came forward and with great difficulty managed to close it. This again to the uninitiated seemed like the best of signs, since they thought that God had opened to them the gate of blessings; but the wise understood that the security of the temple was leaving of its own accord and that the opening of the gate meant it was a gift to the enemy, interpreting the sign in their own minds as showing its impending desolation.”
Josephus, Wars of the Jews 6.5.3 ¶¶293–295
Look at these two signs of that Passover season in 66 C.E. Within a week after the great light of the Shekinah glory was illuminated and “taken up,” we now find the massive Nicanor Gate of the Temple opened up of its own accord. Josephus said the wise among the Jews were able to interpret this as a sign that God was getting ready to leave the Temple and to hand it over to the Romans for destruction.
[ Indeed, Jewish records speak of the “gates” of the Hekel (the Holy Place) opening of themselves off and on for forty years before the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.
“Forty years before the Temple was destroyed ... the gates of the Hekel opened of their own accord, until R. Yohanan b. Zakkai rebuked them [the gates] saying ‘Hekel, Hekel, why alarmist thou us? We know that thou art destined to be destroyed. For of thee hath prophesied Zechariah ben Iddo [Zechariah 11:1]: Open thy doors, O Lebanon, and the fire shall eat thy cedars’.”
Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 39b
The doors of the Hekel in Herod’s Temple were eight stories high and in front of them was the curtain that tore in two at Christ’s crucifixion. Those doors behind the curtain had to be opened to gain entrance to the Holy Place. The splitting of the curtain in two (before those massive doors) also happened in 30 C.E. — 40 years before the Temple’s destruction. Now back to 66 C.E.). ]
Recall also that during the period of 40 years from the year of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection (from 30 to 70 C.E.), the High Priest always selected the black stone for the right-hand goat on the Day of Atonement ceremonies. Also, the western lamp of the Menorah (which was supposed to be continually lit) went out every night (365 days each year) for all those 40 years. Also, the crimson thread on the garment of the High Priest never turned white for those 40 years before the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. 17 These continuous occurrences were miraculous signs foretelling the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem. All the Jews and the apostles would have been aware of these events. The consistency of these signs for that period of 40 years is an amazing witness to the care of God in giving his people Israel warnings about impending judgments upon them and his holy city and Temple.
There was a third miraculous sign in the early spring of 66 C.E. that was even more to the point. This occurred about 50 days later on the Day of Pentecost and it clearly confirmed that the Deity was abandoning the Temple. The sign was not given in a corner, where no witnesses could see it, but it was shown to the combined body of 24 priests who represented the 24 orders of the Aaronic priesthood who ministered together in the festival periods in the Temple. There could have been no higher authorities in Judaism to receive such a manifestation of divine intentions to abandon the Temple. It was often thought by the Jews and Christians that when momentous changes in religious or political systems were taking place, it required some clear sign from God (Amos 3:7). So, the witness to all 24 chief priests was powerful evidence to people of the 1st century that the supernatural event was God ordained and did in fact occur. Notice Josephus’ description:
“Moreover, at the festival which is called Pentecost, the priests on entering the inner court of the temple at nightfall, as their custom was in the accomplishment of their ministrations, stated that they first became aware of a commotion and a roar, and after that the voice of a great multitude saying ‘We are departing hence.’”
Josephus, Wars of the Jews 6.5.3 ¶299
This was interpreted by many Jews at the time that the Deity himself was then leaving the Temple as the two previous signs had shown he would. 18
This departure of the Deity from the Temple at Pentecost of 66 C.E. was exactly 36 years (to the very day) after the Holy Spirit was first given in power to the apostles and the others at the first Christian Pentecost recorded in Acts 2. And now, on the same Pentecost day, the supernatural witness was given that God himself was abandoning the Temple at Jerusalem. This meant that the Temple was no longer reckoned by God to be a holy sanctuary and that the building was no more sacred than any other secular building. Remarkably, even Jewish records show that the Jews retained historical records that the Shekinah glory of God left the Temple at this time and remained over the Mount of Olives for 3½ years. During this period a voice was heard to come from the region of the Mount of Olives asking the Jews to repent of their doings. 19
This has an interesting bearing on the history of Christianity because we now know that Jesus Christ was crucified and resurrected from the dead on the Mount of Olives, the exact region where the Jewish records say the Shekinah glory of God remained for the 3½ years after its departure from the Temple on Pentecost, 66 C.E. This would have signified to the apostles that a new site of interest was becoming important for Christians (and for all Israel). This was the exact region where Christ was crucified, resurrected, and ascended back to heaven. The Jewish reference states that the Jews failed to heed this warning from the Shekinah glory (which they called a Bat Kol — the voice of God), and that it left the earth and retreated back to heaven just before the final siege of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E.
What did these supernatural signs connected with the Temple mean to the apostles who lived at the time? They must have been a certain signal that the revelation of “the Mystery” given to the apostle Paul and others about the irrelevance of the physical Temple on lower Mount Moriah was indeed correct. From Pentecost 66 C.E., no thinking person among the Christians, who respected these obvious miraculous signs associated with the Temple, could believe that the structure was any longer a holy sanctuary of God. Josephus himself summed up the conviction of many Jewish people who came to believe that God “had turned away even from his sanctuary,” that the Temple was “no more the dwelling place of God,” because “the Deity has fled from the holy places.” 20
If the apostles Peter and John — and other Christians who held steadfastly to the teachings of Christ — had any doubts about Paul’s teaching concerning “the Mystery” about the irrelevance of the physical Temple at Jerusalem and the immature elements of the Law that made up Judaism, they would certainly have had none after the wondrous events that took place at Jerusalem in the spring of 66 C.E.
In fact, there was another major sign which occurred within that same period that seemed to be an exact fulfillment of Christ’s own prophecies concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple, and the national existence of the Jews. Christ had said that there would be “fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven” (Luke 21:11). And Josephus reports that things very similar to Christ’s predictions happened just before sunset on the 21st day of the Hebrew second month, the last day of the Second Passover season in 66 C.E. (Numbers 9:11).
“On the twenty-first of the month lyar, there appeared a miraculous occurrence, beyond belief. Indeed, what I am about to relate would, I think, have been reckoned a fable, were it not for the statements of eyewitnesses and for the calamities that happened afterward which deserved to be foretold. For before sunset throughout all areas of the country, there were seen in the air many chariots and armed battalions coursing through the clouds and encircling the cities.”
Josephus, Wars of the Jews 6.5.3 ¶¶297–299
Christ had told his disciples that “when you shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh” (Luke 21:20). And here we find Josephus saying that there were many witnesses throughout Judaea who saw such wonderful and awesome sights in the heavens concerning Jerusalem and the other cities of the country being encompassed with armies. When one considers this marvelous display of heavenly signs along with the other portents of God about Him abandoning the Temple at Jerusalem, it has to be concluded that Peter, John and the other Christians of the time must have been impressed with the phenomena.
We are told by Eusebius that it was immediately after the conclusion of these signs that the few remaining Christians in Jerusalem and Judaea packed up their belongings and left for Pella some 60 miles northeast of Jerusalem. They clearly recognized by the summer of 66 C.E. that the main events associated with the prophesied second advent of Christ would not take place in that generation.
There could be no Abomination of Desolation stand in the holy place of the Temple (Matthew 24:15), when there was no “holy place” remaining in the Temple in the eyes of God! Many Jews felt the Temple had been, by Pentecost 66 C.E., consigned by God to its destruction as Zechariah 11:1 prophesied it would be. Christians realized that there would have to be another Temple built in the restoration period prior to the second advent (Acts 3:19–21) in order for a future Antichrist to place an Abomination of Desolation within it.
The abandonment of the Temple by God at Pentecost of 66 C.E. made Peter and John realize that Paul’s teaching was indeed correct, no matter how hard it was for them at first to acknowledge. Immediately after the miraculous events at Jerusalem Peter and John began to think it was necessary to leave future Christians (who would live in the ages ahead of them) with a divine library of authorized books which could keep them informed of what the actual truths of Christianity really were.
With the apostle Paul still alive in Rome in the early summer of 66 C.E. and without any hope of Paul’s release from Roman custody, the apostle Peter decided to journey to Rome to discuss with Paul what to do about the future. By mid-66 C.E. it was evident to Peter and John that Paul had been given special revelations concerning the fullness of the Gospel and that these teachings of Paul in some of his important letters needed to be collated with other books to make a standard textbook of proper Christian doctrine which would last until Christ’s second advent from heaven.
In this chapter we have seen some of the historical events which occurred after 61 C.E. (after Luke closed the Book of Acts). But why didn’t Luke record these matters which were so important in the reckoning of Christian history? Is it because the events indicated a complete reversal (at first) of love and respect for Paul by the very apostles of Christ? Luke was Paul’s right hand man, and Luke loved Paul and his teachings which he believed had come from God. Maybe this is the answer.
Whatever the case, we can know for sure that Peter and John finally changed their minds in favor of Paul. The miraculous occurrences which happened at the Temple in Jerusalem (which no one could deny had come to pass) were enough to vindicate Paul in the eyes of other apostles. The abandonment of God from the physical Temple at Jerusalem in the Pentecost incident of 66 C.E. (when all the 24 priests heard the voice say: “We are leaving here”) was enough to convince most ordinary Christians that Paul’s teaching was right after all.
In the next chapter we will see that Peter prophesied of the Jewish/Roman War that was, by mid- 66 C.E., immediately on the horizon, and that Jude records what happened at the beginning of that conflict. The fact that the outbreak of that war was foreseen by Peter and that it would result in the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple, and the national existence of the Jews, made it even more imperative for Peter to formulate a New Testament canon in order to preserve the true Christian doctrine for those who would survive the prophesied holocaust.
1 In Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, vol. 1.
2 Alan H. McNeile, An Introduction to the Study of the New Testament, 2nd ed., rev. by C.S.C. Williams (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953, 1965), p. 176.
3 Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), p. 474.
4 Eusebius, Eccesiastical Hisory II.23.
5 Josephus, Wars of the Jews VI.5.3 ¶¶300–309.
6 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XX.9.4 ¶214.
7 Josephus, Wars of the Jews II.14.1 ¶276.
8 Eusebius, Eccesiastical History III.1.
9 Eusebius, Eccesiastical History III.5.
10 Josephus, Wars of the Jews II.14.2 ¶¶278–279.
11 Eusebius, Eccesiastical History III.5.
12 Suetonius, Nero 40. “Yet some of the astrologers promised him, in his forlorn state, the rule of the East, and in express words the kingdom of Jerusalem.” See the English text at: http://perseus.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0132&layout=&loc=nero+40.
13 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XX.9.7 ¶219.
14 See Galatians 2:11–14, 2 Corinthians 11:4 to 12:11; 1 Timothy 1:6–7, Titus 1:10–14.
15 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XV.5.3 ¶136.
16 See the Revised Standard Version or Moffatt Version for the proper translation of these important verses.
17 Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 6:3 and Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 39b.
18 The fact that the supernatural voice said “We” rather than the singular “I” was no problem to 1st century Jews. They were well aware that the Deity went by the name of Elohim which was a unified plural designation, and even in Genesis the plural pronoun “Our” is associated with the personality of God. See Genesis 1:26 and 3:22.
19 Midrash Lamentations 2:11, p. 51 Soncino edition.
20 “Turning away ...” in Josephus, Wars of the Jews II.19.6 ¶539. “No more ...” in Wars of the Jews V.1.3 ¶19). “Deity has fled ...” in Wars of the Jews V.9.4 ¶412.
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